John Waters is an icon of queer cinema, known for his use of grossness and bad taste. However, it is not grotesqueness alone that makes queer film akin to Waters’ work; his humour is distinctly politically disruptive. Through explorations of both Waters’ works and the subsequent films he has influenced, this paper argues that the utilisation of camp-ness and gross out humour contribute to form a Waters-esque aesthetic, which has become decidedly anti-homonormative, and relishes marginalised identities within the LGBTI community. In particular, by embracing that which is considered bad taste, Waters developed a distinctly politically exploitative aesthetic, which unlike more mainstream queer cinema of the time, offered audiences the power to experience queerness in all its extremities. Additionally, in his films, campness is used as a political tool to deconstruct both heteronormative and homonormative popular culture. In doing so, Waters’ films do not make explicit political statements, but rather ideology is conveyed through humour. However, his later films whilst keeping the grotesque, were emptied of his earlier radical camp rhetoric, moving Waters more into alignment with popular culture. The continued influence of Waters as a key figure of queer humour makes his initial grotesque camp aesthetic still of great significance in contemporary queer cinema. Many films are likened to Waters’, yet there are few that match his politically disruptive grotesque camp humour.
John Waters holds royal status in the world of queer cinema. He is the Prince of Puke, the King of Bad Taste and the Pope of Trash.1 Queer festival program notes and film reviews regularly cite movies as reminiscent of Waters in their ‘camp-ness’ and humour: including But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 1999), First Period (Charlie Vaughn, 2013) and Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild! (Todd Stephens, 2008). Often, however, these films are criticised for not matching the grossness of Waters’s work: nothing seems to come close to watching Divine (Glenn Milstead) eating dog shit and licking his lips in Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972). In reviewing queer cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader for instance, Roger Ebert wrote that although it “seeks the general tone of a John Waters film,” his work would have been “ruder and more polished.”2
Yet it is not grossness alone that makes a queer film akin to Waters’s work: politically disruptive humour is a prerequisite to this rudeness. Contemporary queer cinema holds the potential to reach the dizzying heights (or is it lows?) of Waters’s aesthetic through the utilisation of camp humour to disrupt conservative ideologies. His oeuvre has greatly shaped contemporary queer humour, and while his distinct humour plays an important disruptive role, I argue it has mostly been homonormalised. This will be demonstrated in references to films such as Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild! Some films, however, attempt to maintain Waters’s original purpose, such as First Period and Babbit’s films. While commentary on Waters’s humour usually centres on his emphasis on grotesquery, I draw upon Kenneth Burke’s notion of “perspective by incongruity” to identify how the disruption of the dignified homosexual/bad queer binary is just as quintessential to Waters’s exploitative aesthetic.3 In other words, this humour forces a realisation for the artificiality of normal identities. It is through this direction that contemporary queer comedies can be labelled “Waters-esque,” even if they sadly lack a drag queen eating dog shit.
Queer Perspectives of Incongruity
Representations of marginalised queer identities in popular culture have a tendency to be presented in opposition to normative culture. In her analysis of Will & Grace and Queer as Folk, Rachel E. Silverman employs Kenneth Burke’s conceptual framework of perspective by incongruity to examine the depiction of both gay and Jewish identities.4 In a mainstream media landscape dominated by Christian and heterosexual identities, gay, lesbian and Jewish characters are typically rendered as Others, and often through tragic circumstances. This perspective by incongruity approach for Dustin Bradley Goltz “offers a critical tool that is useful for approaching and theorizing queer practice as a comic corrective.”5 Silverman reads characters on both shows, as I read Divine, as existing beyond the tragic binary of victim/villain. Conversely, these shows utilise comedy and camp-ness to ‘correct’ the normative assumptions of heterosexual and Christian perfection. Silverman co-opts Burke’s ideas to illustrate the framing of reality: by granting one orientation the status of normalcy, another is rejected, “inevitably creating limitations and hindering the capacity to operate outside a selected orientation.”6 Perfect orientation occurs when a particular ideological framework is deemed the norm, thus relegating society’s ‘abnormalities’ within a tragic frame. Comedy in Waters’s films have the power to dismantle this tragic frame and, in doing so, have emancipatory power for the audience.
Silverman utilises this perspective to examine how these Othered characters challenge their traditional scapegoating status within the American social context. According to Burke, binary way of social thinking positions the Other as immoral.7 Through Hollywood’s historical penchant for demonising queer characters,8 “the moral myth of normativity is strengthened.”9 For Silverman, “the creation of scapegoats works literally and figuratively to cast out portions of society by constructing them as victims, villains, or both.”10 This constructs these Others as “inferior to normal members of society and therefore as deserving of unequal rights, hatred, or pity.”11 This can be seen in the LGBTI’s community’s push for equal rights in various aspects of civil society. This tragic frame of Otherness can be challenged through the Burkean comedy corrective, which challenges this notion of ‘perfect’ orientation. Perspective by incongruity uses “the process of comic reconstitution” to challenge the notion of us/them “so that their opposition no longer exists.”12
Silverman’s research here can be applied to consider the role humour plays in Waters’s work. While she demonstrates the power gay and lesbian characters have in challenging a heteronormative media landscape in her case studies, I argue that here instead Waters’s humour challenges a homonormative one. For Lisa Duggan, homonormativity does not contest “dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them,” which results in a “depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.”13 Michael Warner articulates this tension in The Trouble with Normal (1999), noting that the relationship between alternative sexualities and mainstream culture is about sexual shame and the stigma that is attached to it leading to a situation where “gender conformists and monogamous couples in the suburbs” are considered as more successful or worthwhile members of the LGBTI community.14 This realignment of norms simply shifts who is marginalised in this new hegemonic order.15 I argue that both the grotesque and camp nature of Waters’s films challenges the orientation towards the ‘respectable’ homosexual; this is a disruption of the new hegemonic order. The following analysis of the Waters’ aesthetic will therefore identify the role camp humour can play in challenging homonormative politics.
Waters’s exploitative aesthetic
“I never took politics too seriously. I went to all the riots and stuff, but just to meet good people. It wasn’t like I had any deep political convictions.” – John Waters16
Waters’s cinema demands an analysis of both marginalised cinema and an analysis of the history of America’s relationship to – its attitudes towards and desires around – queer culture. Mainstream Hollywood of the ‘60s and ‘70s often celebrated films that presented tragic homosexuals, comedic pansies and lesbian vampires.17 Mainstream audiences could not accept films that presented outrageous queer inversions of both traditional sexuality and Hollywood cinematic form. This reflected wider media coverage on the gay and lesbian community as well, as demonstrated by Alwood’s historical study which charts intense transformations in media coverage.18 For example, in 1950s’ news coverage, homosexuals were habitually denoted as ‘perverts’, ‘sex deviates’, ‘fags’, and ‘child molesters’. In the 1960’s, they focused instead on the idea of the ‘sad gay life’, while in the 1970’s they were a ‘militant’ gay minority. This was largely because “gays and lesbians, until recently, were rarely addressed directly as an audience.”19
“Loathsome cinema” directly challenged these conservative ideologies. Harry M. Benshoff contends that the this category was indicative of changes happening within the industry when “foreign, countercultural, and/or queer Influences” were adding to the alteration of “the syntax and meaning of Hollywood filmmaking.”20 The critical backlash to these films forced mainstream Hollywood’s avoidance of such queer characters and styles throughout the 1970s, such as Joseph Losey’s Boom! and Secret Ceremony (both from 1968 and starring Elizabeth Taylor), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970) and Myra Breckenridge (Michael Sarne, 1970). Underground cinema in 1960s downtown New York was also “booming with the new voices and radical visions of the likes of Jack Smith, Andy Warhol (and the Factory), Paul Morrissey, and others.”21 Waters thrived on these films while attending New York University,22 as well as Scorpio Rising (Anger 1964), Un Chant d’Amour (Genet 1950), Thundercrack! (McDowell 1975) and the films of the Kuchar Brothers.23 These bore the marks of exploitation cinema: they were low-budget, independent films that relished topics forbidden by the Production Code, and exhibited in theatres not affiliated with major studios. This environment carved out a space for a whole new generation and mode of filmmaking, a milieu that significantly influenced Waters’s aesthetic. For Waters, it was his ability to capture this in his work that his cult status was achieved.24 Variety labelled Pink Flamingos “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made”25. It seemed that key to Waters’s celebration of bad taste was his reveling in grotesquery.
Waters’s use of camp was decidedly queer in the first period of his career, which consisted of his early shorts, first features and his so-called ‘trash trilogy’ of Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977). When American gay cinema was predominately producing queer content as banal as The Boys in the Band (William Friedkin, 1970) or as offensive as Freebie and the Bean (Richard Rush, 1974), Waters offered audiences the power to experience queerness in all its extremities. His first two features were black-and-white amateur productions shot on 16mm. Mondo Trasho (1969) is a 95-minute-long feature without dialogue, driven primarily by rock classics rather than plot. The minimal storyline sees Mary Vivian Pearce as the Bombshell riding a bus reading Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. She has her feet molested by a stranger in the park, then hit by a car driven by Divine, who later kidnaps and tortures her. Divine finally delivers Bombshell to Dr Coathanger, who amputates her feet and replaces them with monstrous bird claws.
His second feature, Multiple Maniacs (1970), had a more coherent plot, albeit more episodic than its predecessor. The film also established key members of Waters’s Dreamland ensemble, including Divine, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, Edith Massey (my personal favourite), David Lochary and George Figgs. In the film, Divine is the manager of the Cavalcade of Perversion, a travelling sideshow that exhibits various obscenities. The show becomes a front, where Lady Divine robs and later murders her patrons. After leaving the sideshow, Divine discovers her boyfriend David (Lochary) is cheating on her, with both parties intent on murdering the other. The film ends with David killing the other members of the troupe only to be killed by Divine – who is then famously raped by a giant lobster. The film contains one of Waters most shocking scenes: a man actually shooting up on a church alter, something that Waters attributes to his Catholic upbringing.26
Waters’s next three films – his Trash Trilogy – established him as a counter-cultural queer director. These were key examples of the exploitation genre in the 1970’s, and contested the “boundaries of conventional morality while challenging both American censorship and viewers’ expectations.”27 Pink Flamingos sees Divine imagined as a criminal operating under the name Babs Johnson, “the filthiest person alive.” Babs lives in a trailer with her egg-loving mom Edie (Massey), her perverted son Crackers (Danny Mills) and fraudulent confidante Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce). When Babs’ status as the filthiest person alive is challenged by her rivals the Marbles (David Lochary and Mink Stole), the film escalates into a series of outlandish situations that derive humour from a juxtaposition of everyday activity with Waters’s trademark absurdity. For instance, in the “Eggs! Eggs! Eggs!” scene, Edie is dressed as a baby while sitting in a playpen crying out for breakfast. Babs lovingly speaks to her, as she would a child – “we still have some eggs; I’ll put some on for you. Did you sleep well?” Edie’s absurd appearance distracts us from this casual, commonplace dialogue.
Pink Flamingos also features the most notorious scenes in Waters’s career. In the famous dog-shit sequence, the moment is filmed on a Baltimore street. With the sequence shot as a documentary long-take that confirms what we see is real as we hear: “You know somebody filthier? Watch as Divine proves that not only is she the filthiest person in the world but also the filthiest actress in the world. What you are about to see is the real thing.” The scene features close-up shots of Divine licking her lips and Crackers and Cotton smirking. It is in this lowly space that he finds his authority. He scoops, sniffs and consumes it. Taking this grotesquery further, he swallows, winks, smiles and licks his lips – and also gags. Played over this scene is Patti Page’s novelty pop song “The Doggie in the Window.” While standing out as the grossest scene in the film, the humour is at the same time consistent with what has preceded it – everyday cuteness juxtaposed with obscenity.
The latter two films in the Trash Trilogy – Female Trouble and Desperate Living – continued to be more developed than their predecessors. Female Trouble sees Divine playing Dawn Davenport, a delinquent runaway schoolgirl who is sexually assaulted and becomes a single mother that is both a criminal and a model. After shooting an audience member at a nightclub act, Davenport is put to the electric chair and reads out an Oscars-style speech before the concluding act. The film pays homage to notable art house identities – Jean Genet’s theory that “crime equals beauty” and Francois Truffaut’s celebrated final shot in The 400 Blows (1959). The film also pushes boundaries of good taste, as Pink Flamingos did before previously: it features full frontal male nudity, Dawn is penetrated with hammers and pliers, and during her nightclub performance, she wallows in a playpen filled with dead fish. The film cemented Waters ideology and aesthetic. As Levy notes, “in the 1970s, attending a Waters movie was a combination of cultural event and ideological statement, going way beyond the set of particular ideas and images that made up Female Trouble as a film.”28
Desperate Living is Waters’s most female dominated picture with most of the prominent parts played by women, many of whom were not from Waters’s acting troupe. Irrational housewife Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole) and her maid, Grizelda Brown (Jean Hill), go on the lam after killing Peggy’s husband. The pair are arrested and forced into exile to Mortville, a shanty town controlled by Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey). Many of the residents of Mortville are social outcasts and criminals. Peggy assists the Queen in terrorising her subjects, the latter of whom is overthrown by the populace. Peggy is later executed by being shot in the anus while Carlotta is served on a platter with an apple in her mouth. The film was emblematic of his use of an outrageous camp aesthetic to critique mainstream tastes.
Waters’ Camp Aesthetic
I’d be so happy if you turned nelly… queers are just better. I’d be so proud of you if you were a fag and had a beautician boyfriend. I’d never have to worry… I’d worry that you would work in an office. Have children. Celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of heterosexuals is a sick and boring life. – Aunt Ida, Female Trouble
Waters used camp aesthetics to critique both heteronormative and homonormative popular culture. His films do not make explicit political statements, but rather ideology is conveyed through humour. According to Levy, “in terms of screen representation, he has effectively redefined what’s ‘good’ taste and what’s ‘bad,’ what’s beautiful and what’s not, what’s permissible and what’s forbidden.”29 Like many classical exploitation films, Waters relied on contemporary mainstream cinema for definition. His films demand an awareness of contemporary popular culture and politics to comprehend the onslaught of allusive and intertextual references.30 He deployed conventions that mainstream movies prepared audiences not to expect. Waters and his troupe revelled in outrage and gleeful vulgarity. As Levy quotes Waters in his study, “even if you hate my films, you have to at least say that I’ve created my own genre.”31
Levy draws on Susan Sontag32 and Barbara Klinger33 to define Waters’s camp aesthetic. While Sontag focuses on camp as a phenomenon of pure aestheticism based on artifice and stylisation, Klinger draws attention to thorough knowledge of popular culture and a familiarity with the conventions of established genres to appreciate camp. Merging these two approaches, Levy sees Waters’s use of gay camp as a countercultural attack on mainstream pop culture:
Gay camp usually relies on (or imitates) hyperbole of movies and pop culture through overstated décor, fashion, and cross-dressing. In verbal terms it’s reflected in quotations, mimicry, lip-synching, gender inversion, put-downs, and witty puns. Gay camp is of real value to its practitioners because it enables them to demonstrate their insider status, their very cultural existence, and often their superiority over straight outsiders, who don’t dig what they dig when they experience the same movie or TV show.34
It’s this quality that leads noted queer director Bruce LaBruce to critique Sontag’s interpretation of camp, arguing that “her most crucial betrayal of camp comes in her statement that camp is ‘neutral to content’, and thereby “disengaged, depoliticized, or at least apolitical” as camp is “by its nature political, subversive, even revolutionary, at least in its most pure and sophisticated manifestations”.35 LaBruce highlights the rise of a gay conservative camp aesthetic that arose alongside the development of homonormative politics in Western LGBTI social movements.36 For LaBruce, conservative camp postures that queer deviance wouldn’t be necessary if a liberalised society reflected and included ‘normal,’ assimilated gay and lesbian citizens. This line of reasoning sees camp as an interpretive lens rather than as an actual object. For contemporary queer films to capture this Waters aesthetic, they would need to attack this conservative camp through radical humour because the conservative use of camp depoliticises its inherent power.
Waters’s employs camp as an inherently political tool. Jack Babuscio classifies the four basic features of camp as “irony, aestheticism, theatricality and humour,”37 but more importantly for Scott Long, camp violates the “boundaries between the serious and the absurd.”38 It is through this violation that the use of camp finds its political function, where “it is the camp figure who will give rise to the shock, the man who represents camp: who strikes a camp attitude… (taking) on the burdens of society’s contradictions.”39 William Paul outlines how the gross-out film is a radical challenge to “taste and value,”40 arguing that these films are about directness, vulgarity, festivity, playfulness, physicality, release and aggressive uninhibitedness, ultimately pushing limits of what is acceptable. Grossness is a key component of Waters’s use of camp as it challenges conventional modes of behavior. In this way, the gross-out film has the potential to be empowering, freeing queer bodies from the constraints of respectable society. Gross-out films “endowed the people who patronized them with a kind of power – the power to find pleasure in material that was not only offensive to the elite but also excluded the culture of the elite.”41 Here, camp’s excessiveness is expressed through a culture of bad taste. Waters’s films camp aesthetic therefore asks audiences to take pleasure in non-normative representations.
John Waters and Popular Culture
While made on the margins of Hollywood, these films can still be understood through the rubric of popular culture. In understanding Waters as a popular queer artist, I turn to Raymond Williams definition, where popular culture “still carries two older senses: inferior kinds of work … and work deliberately setting out to win favour.”42 Waters’s early exploitation cinema was aimed at niche distribution circuits and audiences made possible by the shift from Hays code to the ratings system. His work excelled within the high/low cultural divide, where the low cultural status accorded to his early work undermines and destabilises classical cinema and embraces taboos. His films were deemed inferior, and thus pleased many of his targeted audiences.
Yet despite Waters’s origins, I am cautious to label him a purely low cultural figure given his transition into popular culture over time. Waters’s later films are decidedly closer to the mainstream, and the shock of his original work has been culturally absorbed. As Ray Browne has argued, rigid distinctions between elite, popular, mass and folk forms of culture are impossible to define as they overlap and affect one another.43 Waters’s following films flirted with accessibility: Polyester (starring former teen idol Tab Hunter) was significantly lighter than his previous efforts, for example. And then there is of course Hairspray, which began his foray into audience-friendly comedies, with Cry-Baby (1990) and Serial Mom (1994) following. Hairspray was commercially successful, earning $8 million at the US box office, “which was more than the combined box office gross of all of his pictures until then.”44 The film sees Ricki Lake play Tracy Turnblad, a Baltimore teen in the 1960’s utilising her new fame from a local teen program, The Corny Collins Show, to triumph racial integration. The film was optimistic and notably Divine’s final role in Waters’ films. It has since been turned into a Broadway musical in 2002, with a film adaptation of the musical released in 2007. Waters’s popularity has since seen him traverse through multiple forms of culture, from having exhibitions in New York to speaking at the Sydney Opera House. Waters is now a regular fixture of the upper echelons of the arts world. In defining popular culture as that which seeks to be liked – and more precisely, bought –Waters carved out a distinct audience and provided them with a product they knew and loved. Through the industrial, cultural and aesthetic formations of exploitation products, Waters found and held an audience. Popular culture is always and essentially aimed at locating an audience that will pay for it; the more people who buy it, the more successful it is. This can come at a price – a loss of his ideological punch that came with the gross-out, extremities of his early cinema
‘Waters-esque’ Humour in Recent Queer Films
This form of humour and its normalisation is evident in contemporary queer cinema. Waters’s earlier films satirised the limits of good taste and all-American institutions. In his later films, grotesquery remained without the camp aesthetic. Waters is nostalgic for the 1970s “before independent film became institutionalised as an industry with its own structure, financial backing, distribution, and stars.”45 His later films (such as A Dirty Shame, Pecker and Cecil B. Demented) were emptied of his earlier radical camp rhetoric.46 Likewise, there are many queer films on the contemporary queer film festival circuit that are labelled as being ‘John Waters-esque.’ For many, this is purely a marketing label to attract audiences that aren’t interested in vanilla romantic comedies. Consider Allan Brocka’s Eating Out, which spawned four sequels, as an exemplar of the kind of works described as ‘Waters-esque’ but that lack the requisite political grotesqueness. Distributor Ariztical even included a quote from a Gaytimes review, labelling it a “John Waters-esque farce full of fine, sexy performances.”47 In Eating Out, straight college student Caleb, at the suggestion of his gay roommate Kyle, pretends to be gay to get closer to his love interest Gwen. Gwen, however, sets him up with her gay roommate Marc with hijinks ensuing. The label “John Waters-esque” is given due to the crude humour of the script, yet while the film is low budget like Waters’s early films, the film is devoid of a camp sensibility. With the exception of the promiscuous (and delightfully named) Tiffani von der Sloot who makes a stronger turn in the fourth sequel Eating Out: Open Weekend, none of the characters are outrageous or perverse, and the male characters are the embodiment of homonormative imagery. They are white, more masculine than feminine, muscular and desiring monogamy. This watered down queerness hides a conservative ideology that is at distinct odds with Waters’s early oeuvre. Without grotestquery, this comedy cannot disrupt a homonormative orientation towards the respectable homosexual.
Another Gay Movie and Another Gay Sequel have also been described as “anarchistic but commercialised, wild but formulated, outrageous but disciplined, rampageous but restricted.”48 Gilad Pavda (2014) spoke of the commercial carnivalesque nature of a particular scene in Another Gay Sequel in particular: Andy (Jake Mosser), wearing a mop and giant sunglasses and dressed like a shark, is seduced into having sex with a man in dog costume thinking that it is his boyfriend Luis. “Hey Shark, wanna get fucked by a puppy?” the man asks. “Scooby dooby do me,” Andy replies. The men begin to simulate anal sex only for Luis to enter the room. The man in the dog costume takes off his mask revealing that he is in fact Andy’s bisexual father (Scott Thompson), and the three men vomit on the bed at the thought of incest. While this scene does push the boundaries of good taste and revel in grotesque humour, the scene “also reconfirms the sexual taboo on incestuous sexual intercourse.”49 It therefore does not challenge or correct the orientation towards respectable queerness (one can only imagine what Divine would do in this circumstance!). Ultimately, these are commercial films reinforcing a hegemonic order and articulate a homonormalisation of gross out queer humour.
Yet there are some queer films whose loathsome camp-ness provides the political sting seen in Waters’s earlier works. Babbit’s feature films – with the exception of The Quiet (2005) – embody a political camp-ness that is rightfully Waters-esque. In her most recent feature, Addicted to Fresno (2015), two sisters working as hotel maids go to absurd lengths to cover up the death of a hotel guest. Sisters Shannon (Judy Greer) and Martha (Natasha Lyonne) agree to pay the owners of a pet cemetery to bury the body. To find the money, they rob a sex shop of all their dildos, sell them to a women’s baseball league party and then rob a snooty kid’s Bah Mitzvah. In Itty Bitty Titty Committee (2007), an all-American girl finds herself when she joins a radical feminist collective Clits in Action C(i)A. The film ends with two characters Meat and Shulamith (named after Shulamith Firestone, played by Deak Evgenikos and Carly Pope) erecting a giant phallus upon the Washington Monument and blowing it up with explosives. Finally, in Babbit’s seminal lesbian 90s rom-com But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), innocent cheerleader Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is sent to a gay and lesbian rehab camp by her god-fearing parents, where she falls in love with bad girl Graham (Clea Duvall). This is Babbit’s most Waters-esque film, starring queer icons Mink Stole, Cathy Moriarty and RuPaul Charles out of drag. The film employs excessive conventional gender representations to critique gender normativity. The women learn how to clean houses and try on bridal dresses while the men change cars and practice shooting. There are, of course, no Edith Masseys or Divines in Babbit’s oeuvre, yet while her films have never featured the depictions of bad taste that Waters’s work exemplified, the humour in But I’m a Cheerleader does call out the artificiality of gender normativity. While light-hearted, these jokes draw attention to the homophobic undertones of respectability politics.
Another film given the ‘Waters-esque’ label is Charlie Vaughn’s low budget comedy First Period, which features Brandon Alexander III and Dudley Beene in drag for the lead roles. As the new girl in school, Alexander III’s Cassie Glenn (a self-labelled “totally rocking superstar, you’re welcome!”), gets the popular group off-side, consisting of Heather (Lauren Rose Lewis), Other Heather (Karli Kaiser) and their clueless, closeted boyfriends (Michael Turchin and Leigh Wakeford). With the assistance of her unhinged friend Maggie (Beene), the film follows a classic high school trope – akin to Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004) or Spork (J.B. Ghuman, Jr., 2010) or Superstar (Bruce McCulloch, 1999) – where a social outcast wants to best the popular group by entering a high school talent contest. Much like Divine’s characters, Cassie and Maggie are likable yet regularly push the boundaries of good taste (Cassie urinates on herself during a pregnancy test, and Maggie likens her areolas to “silver dollar pancakes that got burnt.”) Vaughn’s humour again flirts with grotesquery: First Period’s employment of camp generates an anti-normative humour that is aimed at a decidedly niche audience. This Waters-esque humour challenges homonormative cinema through the film’s revelry in Cassie and Maggie’s excessiveness. The queer film festival circuit, for instance, is often dominated by comedies depicting white, masculine gay men seeking monogamy.50 While Waters has claimed that the films of his career have never been explicitly political, this humour challenges the banal normalisation of LGBTI representation. Through utilising the perspectives of traditionally Othered voices in queer cinema and rejoicing in the rupturing of good taste, queer films such as those outlined here arguably capture this Waters-esque spirit. In doing so, they correct the myth of homonormative orientation towards the ‘respectable’ homosexual.
Waters’s earlier films satirised the limits of good taste and all-American institutions, yet in his later films, grotesquery remained without the politicised camp aesthetic. Unlike his earlier works, these films have to compete with the darkest corners of the Internet. The legacy of his Trash Trilogy remains quintessential to the history of queer cinema: through juxtaposing gross-out humour with everyday Middle American imagery, Waters became an influential queer figure in developing queer exploitation cinema and established himself as an influential figure of queer humour. Through the utilisation of camp-ness and gross out humour, this Waters-esque aesthetic is decidedly anti-homonormative, and relishes marginalised identities within the LGBTI community. As a result of this legacy, contemporary queer comedies are often likened to his aesthetic. Some are exposed homonormative narratives reinforcing a hegemonic order that privileges respectability politics. Using Burke’s perspective of incongruity, films such as the Eating Out films don’t destabilise the good gay/bad queer binary: rather, momentary grossness and camp-ness fades and normality returns. Yet Babbit’s queer oeuvre and First Period offer examples of contemporary queer comedies that utilise camp humour to challenge this orientation towards respectable identities. As a result, they can be justifiably likened to Waters work through their disruptive nature. While we might no longer have Divine in contemporary queer comedies, we have an admirable heir in Cassie Glenn: the rocking superstar pissing on herself.51
This article has been peer reviewed
- John Waters, Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste (New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005). ↩
- Roger Ebert, “But I’m a Cheerleader (review).” Chicago Sun-Times 29 April 2000, accessed August 24: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/but-im-a-cheerleader-2000. ↩
- Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Towards History (Los Altos, CA: Hermes, 1959). ↩
- Rachel E. Silverman, “Comedy as Correction: Humor as Perspective by Incongruity on Will & Grace and Queer as Folk,” Sexuality and Culture 17.2 (2003): 260-275. ↩
- Dustin Bradley Goltz, “Perspectives of Incongruity: Kenneth Burke and Queer Theory,” Genders 45 (2007). ↩
- Silverman, p. 265. ↩
- Burke, op. cit. ↩
- See: Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (New York: Harper & Row, 1987). ↩
- Goltz, op. cit. ↩
- Silverman, p. 263. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Gotlz, op. cit. ↩
- Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on the Democracy (Boston: Beacon Pres, 2003), p. 50. ↩
- Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life (New York, NY: Free Press, 1999). ↩
- Kevin P. Murphy, Jason Ruiz, and David Serlin, “Queer Futures: The Homonormativity Issue” in Special Issue: Radical History Review, 100 (2008): pp.4-5. ↩
- Scott MacDonald, “John Waters’s Divine Comedy,” Egan, James ed. John Waters: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008; Originally published in Artforum (January 1982), p. 78.) ↩
- Russo, op. cit. ↩
- Edward Alwood, Straight News: The Gay and Lesbian Movement (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1996). ↩
- Joshua Gamson, “Sweating in the Spotlight: Lesbian, Gay and Queer Encounters with Media and Popular Culture,” eds. Diane Richardson and Steven Seidman Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies (London, UK: Sage Publications Ltd., 2002), p. 343. ↩
- Harry Benshoff, “Beyond the Valley of the Classical Hollywood Cinema: Rethinking the ‘Loathsome Film of 1970,” eds. Lincoln Geraghty and Mark Jancovich, The Shifting Definitions of Genre: Essays on Labelling Films, Television Shows and Media. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008): p. 94. ↩
- Emanuel Levy, Gay Directors Gay Films? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), p. 275. ↩
- Mike Quarles, Down and Dirty: Hollywood Exploitation Filmmakers and Their Movies (Jefferson: McFarland Classics, 1993). ↩
- Levy, p. 273. ↩
- Levy, p. 284. ↩
- Levy, p. 288. ↩
- Robert Pela, Filthy: The World of John Waters (New York: Alyson, 2002). ↩
- Levy, p. 282. ↩
- Levy, p. 297. ↩
- Levy, p. 268. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Levy, p. 269, citing: Tom Crow, “A Face Only a Serial Mom Could Love,” Los Angeles Village View, 14 April 1994. ↩
- Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966), pp. 275-292. ↩
- Barbara Klinger, Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture, and the Films of Douglas Sirk (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994). ↩
- Levy, p. 290. ↩
- Bruce LaBruce, “Notes on Camp/Anti Camp,” BruceLaBruce.com 7 July 2015, accessed 24 August 2016 brucelabruce.com/2015/07/07/notes-on-camp-anti-camp/. ↩
- LaBruce offers Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar biopic as an example. In his reading of the character of J. Edgar, the film offers a revisionist historical depiction and imbues this figure with “contemporary homosexual conservative values and morals into the past in order to recuperate and reclaim these complex, monstrously pathological characters as themselves mere “queer” victims of a repressed and homophobic society.” ↩
- Jack Babuscio, “Camp and the Gay Sensibility,” in eds. Harry Benshoff and
Sean Griffin, Queer Cinema: The Film Reader (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 20. ↩
- Scott Long, “The Loneliness of Camp,” in ed. David Bergman Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1993), p. 80. ↩
- Long, p. 90. ↩
- William Paul, Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy (New York: Columbia Uni Press, 1995), p. 20. ↩
- Paul, p. 4. ↩
- Raymond Williams, “Popular” in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Revised and Expanded (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 237. ↩
- Ray B. Browne, “Popular Culture: Notes Towards a Definition” in eds. Harold Hinds and Marylin Ferris. Popular Culture Theory and Methodology (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006): pp. 15-22. Originally published in eds. Ray B. Browne, & Ronald J. Ambrosetti Popular Culture and Curricula (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1972): pp. 3-11. ↩
- Levy, p. 303. ↩
- Levy, p. 321. ↩
- Similarly, Adam Shankman’s 2007 remake of Hairspray made significant concessions with the original’s camp sensibility. John Travolta’s Edna Turnblad in particular was what Suzanne Woodward identified as “a family-friendly drag queen to soothe the nerves of heteronormative film spectators.” (“Taming Transgression: Gender-bending in Hairspray (John Waters, 1988) and its remake,” New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 2-3:10 (2012): p. 116). Woodward identifies that both audiences’ knowledge and expectations of the two performers of Edna (both Divine and Travolta) greatly reduces the remake’s employment of camp as a political tool. While Divine was well known for being a b-grade drag queen that pushed boundaries of taste and social etiquette, Travolta is an obstinately heterosexual actor. Shankman “opted to retain the gender variance but without any apparent understanding of the anti-normative gender politics at work in Divine’s performance” (Ibid., p. 123). Additionally, contemporary audiences would have been largely unaware of Divine status as a cult icon and as a result, missed the inherent queerness of Edna’s original portrayal. ↩
- Andrew Copestake, “Eating Out Press Kit” (2004), retrieved from: http://www.ariztical.com/images/eatingout/eatingout-press-release.pdf. ↩
- Gilad Padva, Queer Nostalgia in Cinema and Pop Culture (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 120. ↩
- Padva, p. 119. ↩
- See: Stuart Richards, The Queer Film Festival: Politics & Popcorn. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. ↩
- I would sincerely like to thank Alexandra Heller-Nicholas for her invaluable feedback while developing this article. I am in debt to the anonymous reviewers for their advice and encouragement. ↩